(director: Otto Preminger; screenwriters: from the novel by Allen Drury/Wendell Mayes; cinematographer: Sam Leavitt; editor: Louis R. Loeffler; music: Jerry Fielding; cast: Henry Fonda (Robert Leffingwell), Charles Laughton (Sen. Seabright “Seb” Cooley), Don Murray (Sen. Brigham Anderson), Walter Pidgeon (Sen. Bob Munson), Peter Lawford (Sen. Lafe Smith), George Grizzard (Sen. Fred Van Ackerman), Franchot Tone (The President), Gene Tierney (Dolly Harrison), Lew Ayres (Vice President Harley Hudson), Burgess Meredith (Herbert Gelman), Will Geer (Senate Minority Leader Warren Strickland); Runtime: 142; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Otto Preminger; Columbia Pictures; 1962)


“Viewing it today, its quaintness and timidness make it seem out of step with the even more insidious contemporary times.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Based on Allan Drury’s 1959 political potboiler Advise and Consent; it spent 93 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Under Otto Preminger’s (“Laura”/”The Moon Is Blue”/”Anatomy of a Murder”) direction it’s turned into an old-fashioned overwrought melodrama, with the appearance of being the genuine article about how the political process works on the Beltway. It gives the appearance of being knowledgeable about the behind-the-scenes goings-on in the Senate. Viewing it today, its quaintness and timidness make it seem out of step with the even more insidious contemporary times. All the names are fictionalized. I saw the colorized version on a Video Treasure video.

The plot revolves around the appointment of the decent but controversial Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) to Secretary of State. He’s viewed as a man who is independent-minded, an internationalist and soft on the Commies, which makes many of the Washington insiders suspicious of him. The ailing President (Franchot Tone) hand-picked Leffingwell despite knowing that this unpopular selection will bring on a battle on the Senate floor between those loyal to the President and opponents to the administration.

Sen. Bob Munson (Walter Pidgeon), the Senate Majority Leader, and those under his thumb, try to get the President’s choice approved by the senate in the usual way of twisting arms. Veteran Southern Senator Seabright “Seb” Cooley (Charles Laughton) is the smooth-talking leader of the opposition, who holds a personal grudge against the appointee for making him look bad at one time during a senate hearing. Cooley uses the testimony of a mentally unbalanced clerk, Herbert Gelman (Burgess Meredith), to accuse Leffingwell of being a former Communist. Leffingwell admits to the President that is true and that he lied to the hearing, but the President refuses to withdraw his name and dismisses his Commie membership as a youthful indiscretion.

Sen. Brigham Anderson (Don Murray), the respected married Mormon senator from Utah, is the subcommittee chairman who will not commit to his party leader and he becomes the focal point of the confirmation hearing because his vote is essential for confirmation. When Anderson learns of the perjury, he demands the withdrawal of Leffingwell’s nomination. But the President refuses to blink. Anderson then decides to tell the country about the perjury. Ambitious freshman Senator Fred Van Ackerman (George Grizzard), looking to gain power through McCarthy methods, warns Anderson that if he fails to approve the nomination, his own youthful indiscretion—a wartime homosexual experience with another soldier in Hawaii—will be exposed. This blackmail threat shakes up Anderson and unable to face his family, colleagues and constituents, he violently commits suicide by slitting his throat with a razor.

The slow-moving tedious film comes to life only in the climactic scene over the vote for confirmation. It results in a deadlock, and it’s now up to the uncommitted Vice President (Lew Ayres) to break the tie. A series of surprising events keep the viewer on his or her toes as to the outcome.

In the end despite Preminger’s muckraking, he lets the Senate and the political process off too easy. Preminger seemed to be unaware that his stereotyped caricaturing of the gay aspect presented the same witch-hunting furor he thought he was decrying. This bow to homophobia soils the film just as the so-called liberal film thought it was exposing a defiled government. The provocateur filmmaker offers a safe message that seems to be that ‘Mr. Smith can go to Washington,’ but ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ as it’s better to stay in the closet than shake things up. Preminger wants us to believe that the system works, except for a few bad-apples.